For the first time Thursday night, Nolan Carroll played in a preseason game. And for the first time, the Eagles sampled the dime formation they’re intending to showcase at times this season, the formation made possible by Carroll’s signing.
“It's cool, man,” Carroll said Sunday. “I'm really just getting adjusted to it. It's the first time in a game that I’ve played dime. I've only really done it in practice. In Miami, I played nickel for a year or two. I never really had a chance to play that.”
Carroll estimated that the Eagles played about six or seven dime snaps in their 31-21 win over the Steelers at the Linc. The game also marked Carroll’s debut. He had missed the first two games with a groin injury that interrupted his terrific camp.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis gave his playbook wrinkle an early stamp of approval, saying the scheme went “real well.”
“Nolan had a nice grasp of the defense,” he added. “You saw we put the dime package out there and he was part of the dime. So we wanted to take a look at that and see how that played out, and we were happy with it.”
By going to dime, a formation involving six defensive backs, the Eagles can get their best coverage personnel on the field against spread formations, especially offenses that feature tight ends who stretch the field or running backs who line up in the slot.
In most cases, DeMeco Ryans will come off the field, Mychal Kendricks can draw more favorable assignments and the Eagles can shore up the coverage problems across the middle that were primarily responsible for them having the NFL’s worst pass defense last year and giving up the fifth-most passing yards in league history.
Carroll’s versatility is one of the key components of the package. He enters as the sixth defensive back and plays a linebacker-like role, often pitted across from a tight end. Kendricks, a 5-foot-11 linebacker who has struggled historically against tight ends, is either matched up on a running back or free to blitz, which are two of his best attributes.
Davis lacked the personnel to put six defensive backs on the field last year. Safety Patrick Chung couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t play well when he did get on the field. Roc Carmichael, who had very little NFL experience, manned the fourth corner role.
By signing versatile safety Malcolm Jenkins and Carroll, who started 26 of his 58 games with the Dolphins, the Eagles armed Davis with more coverage weapons to counter the proliferation of four-wide offenses.
“It's really another tool that the coaching staff now has to defend multiple-receiver personnel groups,” Davis said. “If we have a tight end [who is] always releasing, and you can go to that package.
"Lots of teams have the tight end that is still intact and still can run the ball. So you move in and out of nickel-dime. You see who they are, who you are, what your matchups are like. It's great to have that other tool in place to activate and help us get off the field on third down.”
Right now, the formation is in its infantile stage. Carroll and Jenkins meet weekly with Davis and inside linebackers coach Rick Minter to brush up on assignments and add more to the package. Davis installed the dime into the playbook back in OTAs and they’ve been honing it since.
Carroll had played nickel back early in his career with the Dolphins before moving outside. He knew the Eagles envisioned him playing in the dime when he signed, but he also knew he’d have to learn new responsibilities.
“They kind of told me that before I got here what the plan was,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ It was fun, too. When I was out there [against the Steelers], I really had fun playing. It’s just the excitement of something new and the experience of it, and I enjoyed it.”
Almost every team that plays against the Eagles this season has at least one tight end who's capable of stretching the field, starting with Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis. The Colts have Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. The Niners have Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald. The Cowboys have Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. The Rams have Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks.
More and more teams are attacking the middle of the field with two-tight end formations, including the Eagles.
“You just look around the league, there are so many pass-catching tight ends,” Carroll said. “They're trying to use that mismatch against those linebackers, sometime safeties. So if we can just grow that package and get to the point where we're all used to it, then we'll be good.
“We're really trying [to have it mastered] for Week 1, that's what we’re trying to do. We don't want to wait until the middle of the season and be like, ‘Oh, let’s get it down pat.’ We've been trying to get it down since OTAs, just sprinkling stuff in here and there for me to kind of get used to it and then Malcolm to get used to it. Once we get used to that more and more, that's when we become confident and we become more efficient.”